Democratic deja vu
6:25 am
Fri September 21, 2012

Voters in 87th District face Democratic deja vu

Updated at 1:15 pm to reflect that the maps were drawn by a panel of judges, not the General Assembly.

In the first election after redistricting, it’s not uncommon for former colleagues from the same party to square off for a seat in the Missouri General Assembly.

So the August primary between Democrats Susan Carlson and Stacey Newman for the new 87th District in St. Louis County was nothing unusual - until the unofficial results showed a one-vote margin of victory for Newman. The plot thickened when ballot irregularities made it impossible to conduct a recount.

By now, the two women planned to be helping out other candidates with general election opponents. But instead, they’re back out on the campaign trail for themselves.

Not your typical primary

The set-up on a recent Monday night looks exactly like what you’d expect from a primary campaign. Volunteers settle into cubicles at a Clayton law office, lists of phone numbers, scripts, and cell phones in hand, ready to get out the vote for their candidate. But listen to the pitch, and you realize this is not your typical primary.

"Hi, Mr. Hollander?" one volunteer says. "This is Jane Tucker, and Stacey Newman asked me to call you and remind you about the redo election that we have to have on Monday, September 24."

Tucker got involved with two days left in Stacey Newman’s first primary of the year because she liked Newman’s stance on gun control. And she didn't hesitate when Newman needed her help again a short time later.

"I was just so upset by the whole thing," Tucker says. "I mean, it did make wonder what goes when you go into - I’m totally not about voter fraud, but there is some incompetency when you go into the polling stations. So I just felt terrible for her."

Seeds of a new election

The "whole thing" started when new state House maps put two neighboring Brentwood precincts into separate districts. Those two precincts had the same polling place, and election workers weren’t being careful enough with who was getting what ballots, says Democratic county elections director Rita Heard Days.

"We had redistricting, so people weren’t really sure as to who their state rep should be," Days said. "It's a combination of those things, including the human error, made that mistake just unacceptable."

"We had redistricting, so people weren't really sure as to who their state rep. should be. It's a combination of those things, including the human error, that made that mistake just unacceptable." - Rita Heard Days

Days says elections employees first realized there might be a problem when that precinct ran out of ballots earlier than expected. She says the Board of Election Commissioners held an additional training session for polling supervisors, and is investigating technology to avoid a similar situation in the future.

The county turned the problem over to the courts, where a judge ruled that the only fair way to untangle the thicket was to stage a new primary. That contest is next Monday, Sept. 24.

"Hand-to-hand combat"

Stacey Newman - the unofficial winner on August 7 - wasn’t sure the proposed solution was fair.

"I mean, it’s a primary situation," she said. "You’re going to have people who voted on a Republican ballot back in August who will be able to vote again. You're going to have people who didn't vote for other reasons, they'll be able to come vote again.  And then I was concerned about the absentee statutes. The deadlines had all passed, in terms of overseas, college kids, people who really would want to vote again in this race. Some of those have been marginalized."

But still, she set about contacting her supporters and ramping up a campaign operation she thought she could shut down until 2014. Her opponent - Susan Carlson - is doing the same thing.

"Phone calls, I’m out knocking doors when I can, mail, any community events where’s there’s going to be a number of voters from the district," Carlson said of her strategy. "Luckily we had not yet cleaned up after the last election."

Judi Roman calls it hand-to-hand combat. She's among a half-dozen on the phones at another downtown Clayton law firm - just across the street from Stacey Newman's headquarters. Roman’s an old hand at campaigns, and would be out in the trenches for other Democratic candidates if she wasn’t here. But Roman says no one has turned down a request to help Carlson out.

"I think they see that this [race] needs to happen, it needs to happen now, it needs to happen fast, and then they can go on do whatever else they want to do," Roman said. 

"I think they see that this [race] needs to happen, it needs to happen now, it needs to happen fast, and then they can go on do whatever else they want to do." - Judi Roman

Newman and Carlson themselves were key assets in the Democrat’s effort to gain some seats in Jefferson City. But state House Democratic Campaign Committee co-chair Jake Hummel says their absence hasn’t altered his strategy.

"Certainly I would have preferred to have all the help in the world, sometimes that’s just not reality. We have a strong caucus, and other members have stepped up to take their place," Hummel said.

The results on Monday will end, for now, the elected career of one of the candidates. But both Stacey Newman and Susan Carlson say they have no time to think about that until Sept. 25.

Follow Rachel Lippmann on Twitter: @rlippmann